Team Canada celebrates a goal. Photo Credit: Ethan Morrison

USA-Canada Rivalry Rematch shows potential for women’s hockey

In the last decade, women’s hockey in North America has made leaps and bounds from where it was years ago.

March 15, 2022

In the last decade, women’s hockey in North America has made leaps and bounds from where it was years ago. The now Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) has showcased the climbing presence of women-led sports.

Although the PHF highlights some of the best female hockey players in North America, many are still fighting for better pay and insurance coverage from the league, thus leading to the inception of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) in 2019.

Fast forward to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in February, women’s hockey was once again put on display in a global spotlight. Once again, the United States and Canada found themselves competing for the gold medal. Ultimately, Canada topped team USA with a 3-2 victory, but what was more important was the audience the game garnered.

According to The Athletic, an average of 3.54 million viewers watched the gold medal game, which surpassed every NHL game for this season. It also became the second most-watched hockey game in the United States since 2019.

All of this came with the opening puck drop scheduled for 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time, with the game ending in the wee hours of the morning.

While the US and Canadian women’s teams faced off twice in the Beijing Olympics, the games received very little in-arena support as less than 900 spectators were in attendance. The lack of fans at the games, accompanied by late game times, deprived the players and fans of the true support they deserved.

Quickly after the gold medal matchup, it was announced that the two Olympic teams would square off again, but this time in North America. Organized by the PWHPA and supported by the Pittsburgh Penguins, the two teams were set to face off in a Rivalry Rematch at PPG Paints Arena on March 12.

In front of a recorded attendance of 5,410, the teams provided the fans with what they were hoping for and then some. Both teams registered three goals apiece through regulation. Then the energized patrons were treated with 3-on-3 overtime, in which Marie-Philip Poulin scored for Canada to give them the 4-3 victory.

The day as a whole served as a testament to the potential support women’s hockey could receive in the future.

“Walking in, [we were] treated like professionals,” team Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin said. “That’s something we’ve wanted for years. Having this game within two or three weeks of notice and having that many people in the stands, I think it’s the start of something great.”

Fans showed up early to take in as much as possible from the teams and the players were just as grateful for the fanfare.

“It was awesome,” Canadian forward Blayre Turnbull said. “I think that’s the first thing we noticed when we stepped on for warmups. The fans were starting to fill the seats and there were tons of kids on the glass with signs asking for sticks and pucks. It felt like we were a part of the NHL.”

Not only did the players appreciate the support from the fans, but also the city of Pittsburgh and the Penguins.

One player in particular who knows the true nature of Pittsburgh and its love for hockey is Amanda Kessel. The sister of former Pittsburgh Penguin Phil Kessel, Amanda, acknowledged what this city means to hockey and her.

“Pittsburgh is a great sports city and hockey city,” Amanda said.”I was able to experience it with Phil and it holds a special place in my heart as well.”

Before the Rivalry Rematch, the players had the opportunity to meet with some players from the Pittsburgh Penguins and discuss the importance of women’s hockey. Poulin noted that fellow Canadians Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang took a special interest in the overall goal for the women players.

“Being able to chit-chat about what we are trying to do, they are very interested and believe in what we have and I think that says a lot,” Poulin said.

With all of the support from the city and the Penguins and playing in an NHL-sized arena, it offered the players the vision of what they are aiming for.

“It’s a wonderful glimpse into the near future,” USA forward Hilary Knight said. “To have the Pittsburgh Penguins pull this off in two and a half weeks and to have the crowd we had is incredible. We’ve always had NHL club support, but it is extremely special to have a Rivalry Rematch in the fashion and professionalism that the Pittsburgh Penguins did.”

As the players seek to grow the game of women’s hockey, they are also broadening the avenue for younger women to pick up a hockey stick and play the game.

Locally, the growth of hockey as a whole has expanded, including in the women’s realm. There are now numerous organizations that house girls’ hockey teams. Pittsburgh also has its taste of high-level women’s hockey with the Robert Morris women’s hockey team.

While they are currently on pause after their program was cut in the summer of 2021, the team will resume competition during the 2023-24 season.

The Robert Morris program has been a launching pad for female players in the area as several players are on current rosters in the PHF. Also, Anna Fairman (China), Aneta Ledlova (Czech Republic) and Meeri Raisanen (Finland) all appeared in the Beijing Olympics this year.

Another former RMU player with close ties to the Olympics and the specific United States, Canada rivalry is goaltender Brianne McLaughlin. McLaughlin was named to the US Olympic teams in 2010 and 2014 and has been in the thick of the rivalry.

On Saturday, McLaughlin filled a different role as she sat alongside Robby Incmikoski and Colby Armstrong for the intermission reports during the AT&T SportsNet broadcast of the Rivalry Rematch.

“It was different. I’ve never done that before, so it was a learning experience,” McLaughlin said. “Robby and Colby make it so fun. They’re so funny and make you feel comfortable.”

McLaughlin also was gracious for Pittsburgh to hold such an event as it gave younger generations of women’s hockey players the chance to see these Olympians in person.

“For all these girls to see their heroes right here in their hometown is pretty cool,” McLaughlin said.

After all, the Rivalry Rematch can be seen as a success. From the entertaining game on the ice to the energized fans in the stands, it all shows the potential for women’s hockey. Now, it is time for the PWHPA to continue on the path of expansion.

“I hope this continues as its asset moving forward,” Knight said. “I think it would be a wonderful opportunity to cater to the national women’s hockey fans and then also build on all the momentum we see every four years and do it night in and night out.”